The deadlift is a favorite of powerlifters and regular gym rats because it’s a compound exercise that strengthens the posterior chain and works out just about every other muscle group in the human body at the same time. It’s one of the three main powerlifting exercises, the other two of which are the bench press and the squat. Still, the deadlift reigns supreme, which is why so many people become so fixated on it.
There’s a bit of a learning curve when it comes to the deadlift. That’s because so many muscle groups are engaged in the course of a deadlift, which taxes the body greatly. Once you have the proper form, though, the deadlift is a great workout that will work the most important muscle groups in your back and teach your body how to hinge at the hip, an incredibly important motion for working out and also for many daily functions like picking things up off the ground.
We’ve assembled this list of the 10 most effective deadlifting techniques and deadlift variations so people who have discovered the allure of the deadlift can continue enjoying the challenge of this powerlifting exercise and all the gains that come with it. Read on if you’ve found your deadlifting technique lacking recently and are looking for the best ways to fix it.
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The Deadlift: What It Is & What It Isn’t
For those who are new to deadlifting, it might help to understand what this powerlifting exercise is and what it is not. The deadlift does have an impeccable reputation among gym rats and fitness geeks, but it also has some limitations.
You can execute a deadlift with a dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell, or a trap bar. If you have the image in mind of a strongman holding the bar up above his head, you don’t quite have it right. In a deadlift, the dead weight is lifted to your knees, then to the thighs, and then released. This occurs in three stages: the hip hinge to pick the weight up, the initial lift up to the knees, and then a final lift where the back is straightened.
What the deadlift is not is an exercise exclusively targeting (or even operating via) the erector spinae, a muscle group located on either side of the spine. This muscle group is used to extend the spine, as you need to do to hunch over, twist, or lean over. However, deadlifting relies on a completely neutral spine throughout the exercise to be effective and neutralize the risk of injury. Deadlifts train other muscles, like the glutes, to share the load and take some pressure off the spine, which can help avoid spinal injury in the future.
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How to Complete a Traditional Deadlift
Before we get into deadlift variations and the 10 best ways to improve a deadlift, let’s talk about the classic form for a traditional deadlift. If you have the proper form in mind, the rest of this guide will have a more illustrative context.
- Step up to the barbell until it’s over the center of your foot.
- With your hands about shoulder-width apart, get a good grip on the bar.
- Bend both legs at the knee until the bar is touching or nearly touching the bar.
- Lift your chest. This is a key step. It should feel like you’re trying to make your pecs face the wall in front of you but remember not to bend your spine at all.
- Inhale and lift the bar to your knee, then continue lifting until you’re standing up straight. The bar should be somewhere in the mid-thigh region.
- Hold the bar in place there for a second, then return it to the ground by (depending on the gym rules) dropping to the ground or repeating the movement you used to pick it up.
Common Problems With Deadlifting
The number one mistake deadlifters make is failing to deadlift properly. The key to deadlifting with good form is in the spine, the grip, the hips, and the chest. It is vital to open up your chest especially when you start deadlifting really heavy weight. The hip hinge is also critical because it determines how your spine is engaged during the lift. You’ll find the most improvement in the range of motion in your hips once you’ve been deadlifting regularly for a few months.
Many people also fail to get the right grip on the bar. Three grips are most frequently used by deadlifters. These are the overhand grip, the mixed grip, and a hook grip. Generally, the hook grip takes the most getting used to because it puts much more pressure on the thumb than the other two. For really heavy weight, some deadlifters use a combination of the hook grip and the mixed grip, which is itself a combination of the overhand grip and an underhand grip.
Although there is some debate, it is clear to most people that taking the slack out of the bar before you lift is critical to deadlift without risk of injury or falling out of balance. The entire motion of a deadlift should also be a fluid motion free from jerking or explosive movements.
10 Best Ways to Improve Your Deadlift Fast
Whether you’re unable to add more weight to your bar, your gains have plateaued, or you’re still figuring out how to complete a deadlift, following these 10 simple tips will help you get the most out of your deadlifting.
1. Open Up Your Chest
Everyone has heard this piece of wisdom when they first start learning how to deadlift, but it truly is one of the most important factors of doing a deadlift with good form. The better you can open up your chest, the less likely a curved back will become, reducing your risk of injury and improving your ability to deadlift overall.
Although deadlifting is a total body workout, it doesn’t challenge the chest muscles as much as some other exercises do. Since it doesn’t make your pectorals feel as jacked as, say, benching a barbell, many people tend to ignore their chest when they deadlift. If your chest caves, it can lead to deadlift failure and increase your risk of injury.
To open up your chest, try to make your pectoral muscles point directly in front of you without curving your spine. As you move through the motions of a deadlift, keep your chest muscles flexed especially around your armpits. The largest muscle in the human body, which is called the latissimus dorsi, is mostly on the back but attaches underneath both arms.
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2. Take the Slack Out of the Bar
Getting into the starting position is one of the most important parts of a deadlift. It prepares the various muscle groups involved in powerlifting. It also helps make sure you use good form consistently. If you aren’t sure how to pull the slack out, there are a few signs that you’ve done so successfully. On older barbells, there is physical space between the bar and the weights. So when you properly take out the slack, you’ll feel the bar move slightly and here a clinking sound.
Here are a few other steps when you’re preparing for a deadlift to make sure you’ve taken the slack out of a bar:
- Your hips should be hinged
- Knees should bend enough for your shins enough to touch the bar but not enough for you to be down in a squat position
- Remember to flex your lats
- Inhale into your diaphragm
- When you take out slack, your muscles should be flexed and you should be pushing the floor away just enough to lock up but not enough to lift the bar.
3. Keep Your Hips Down
For maximum deadlift strength and to avoid lifting with your spine, you have to make sure your hips are angled down at two critical parts of the lift. That would be when you’re taking out the slack and when you begin the lift. The leg drive you get from pointing your hips down to dig in will spare your lower back lots of pain and greatly reduce your risk of injury there.
Concentrating on your hips as you initiate the lift will also help you stay in good form. The hips are a central part of deadlifting and keeping them down will also keep your spine straight and help you drive up with your lower body. Make sure they stay well above your knees.
4. Fix That Weak Lockout
A weak lockout is a severely limiting factor in completing a deadlift and could potentially increase your risk of injury. If you aren’t sure what a lockout is, it’s basically the locked position of your various joints and muscles right when you’re finished taking the slack out of the bar and before you initiate the deadlift. Don’t think of locking yourself up the way you might lock your knees to stand up straight, but rather how you might tighten your grip on a baseball bat.
Some deadlifters try working out their lower back muscle groups to try and get more power out of their lockout. While it’s always good to build your various muscle groups, deadlift strength comes from the complete motion of the move from the starting position through lockout to the final lift. The best way you can fix your lockout is by following our next tip.
5. Reset Your Deadlift
To make sure you can repeatedly do the deadlift correctly from start to finish, try fully standing up between reps. Rather than letting the bar roll down your thighs to help it reach the ground faster and running with the momentum into your second rep, try letting the bar rest on the ground while you rise to the very beginning starting position.
Restarting each time you attempt a deadlift will help you perfect a good form in the critical beginning and prevent you from moving too quickly through the rest of the movement. For beginners, this is one of the best ways to perfect a deadlift.
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6. Use Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is a cornerstone of almost every workout. The general idea is that you continue to apply more strain on your body beyond what it became accustomed to. It’s the best way to build deadlift strength and that’ what it takes to cause the muscle damage that turns into gains.
If you’ve plateaued and you’re struggling to add weight to your deadlifts, consider using progressive overload. You can increase your rep max, how often you go to deadlift, how much weight you deadlift in a max single rep, or how much you rest between sets.
7. Stretch Your Satellite Muscle Groups
The deadlift can be ruined by weak hamstrings, glutes, quads, or other muscles just like a string of Christmas lights won’t light up because of a single bulb. If you find yourself unable to progress in your deadlifting or unable to complete a deadlift, try some hamstring exercises or add some plyometrics that target deadlift strength to your normal training program. Also, consider exercises like plyometric crunches that can build your core strength. Rack pulls are some of the best exercises for increasing deadlift strength.
8. Improve Your Grip Strength
We’ve already mentioned the three types of grips people use in deadlifting. If you’re lifting lighter weights, you may only need to change your grip on the bar to get more power into a deadlift. For heavier deadlifting, consider using a mixed grip with one hand facing away from you. If your grip strength is good enough, you can also try the double overhand grip. It’s just like the hook grip but without using the thumb, so there’s nothing to prevent the bar from slipping back to the ground except your grip strength.
9. Try a Deadlift Variation
The deadlift has many variations and you might find that one of them is the perfect way to get out of a slump. You can also use some deadlift variations to practice aspects of deadlifting to make your traditional deadlifts more effective. Here are a few deadlift variations to try:
Farmer’s Walk:In this deadlift variation, you take a few steps while you have the barbell in the top deadlift position. It will build up your posterior chain and help you build up your grip strength. Consider using a trap bar so you can stand in the middle with less risk of injury.
Sumo Deadlift:A Sumo deadlift will work the hip flexors just as hard as a traditional deadlift will. The main difference is that during a sumo deadlift, your feet will be further apart than in a traditional deadlift, where they would be about shoulder-width apart.
Romanian Deadlift:A Romanian deadlift starts from the standing position rather than from a lowered position like a traditional deadlift does. In a Romanian deadlift, you need to pull your hips through rather than pushing the floor away like you would in a traditional deadlift.
Deficit Deadlift:One of the best ways to get a progressive overload without adding more weight to your dumbbell is a deficit deadlift. In this version, you stand on some kind of platform to make the deadlift more difficult. It’s a great workout that will make traditional deadlifts seem easier. You can build tons of muscle mass with the right amount of deficit.
10. Hire a Strength Coach
In the end, if you just can’t seem to improve your deadlift or you lose the ability to do them like you used to be able to, a few sessions with a strength coach might be worthwhile. They’re professionals who can work with you from the warm-up to the final deadlift and help you work out what problems you might be having. Strength coaches know how to teach good form to aspiring deadlifters and their advice can be very helpful even if they’re only engaged for a short time.
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Deadlifting is a total-body workout that will give you broad, ripped shoulders that push-ups or other upper body workouts just can’t provide. From the glutes to the hamstrings, quads, and the lats, deadlifting works just about every muscle and muscle group in the body.
You might have heard people complain that deadlifting causes lower back pain, but that’s only the case when a deadlift is done with the wrong form. Deadlifting can even reduce pain in people with chronic low back pain assuming they have the proper muscles and ability to deadlift properly.
Many deadlift variations keep the posterior chain engaged and the upper body ripped, so even if you do perfect the conventional deadlift there is plenty of room for growth. Although it may look simple, many people have problems with deadlifting. Even those who have learned to deadlift with proper form occasionally find themselves plateauing in terms of gains and might need to shake things up a bit.
Luckily, there are many ways to improve your deadlift. It might be a problem with form or it could be a problem with the type of deadlift you’re practicing. Although deadlifting does workout virtually every muscle group in the body, there are some satellite muscles that you can target to make your deadlifting even smoother. You may also need to deadlift more often or adjust the amount of weight you’re trying to deadlift.
One of the most common aspects of the deadlift where most people have room for improvement is in their grip. There are a couple of different kinds of grip for deadlifting that each has its advantage. It’s best to learn both alongside some deadlift variations so you can keep your muscle growth dynamic.
The deadlift is one of the best exercises for a broad, rippled upper back and cannonball shoulders. They work your quads more than good mornings or split squats. Plus, let’s face it, they make you feel like a beast. If you need to tweak your deadlifting technique to build muscle or just to keep things interesting, there are plenty of ways to do so.
Strength training may not give you all the same gains as deadlifting, but it can help build muscle mass in the right places to make deadlifting easier. If you’re having trouble with your deadlift, try resetting your deadlift. You can also dry deadlift alternatives and, if nothing else works, call in a strength coach for help.
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